Time for Sewell to rest his pen?

“Indecent Exposure”  – Brian Sewell at his classic, antiquated worst

Apparently, as anyone who read this Thursday’s Evening Standard will know, Brian Sewell doesn’t like the newly opened Seduced by Art exhibition at the National Gallery. Nor, as he has widely articulated in the past, does he like Tate, the Turner Prize, Cy Twombly, the National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award, Conceptual Art, or (now in this piece) photography masquerading as art. Is he out of touch with what constitutes art in this young century?

Advertising image for the National Gallery show.

I haven’t been to see Seduced yet, so I can’t account for its strengths or try and defend it against the tirade of Sewell. I do, however, have some brief points to raise as an alternate to his general view. Firstly, I don’t think its realistic (not that Sewell lives in a world of realism) to expect the NG to churn out exhibitions of the same ilk time after time. This show signals a slight deviation from their remit of housing and showcasing the nations collection of Western European art from 1250-1900. In doing this it demonstrates, perhaps, a slight creative frustration and an ambition to push boundaries and develop an interest in building new thematic connections. I’m sure the gallery expected criticism, accusations of courting popularity, of diluting their idealistic brand, but they felt time was ripe for a change and I think they deserve a credible chance at this.

Secondly, and most crucially, Sewell begins from a flawed perspective. It’s only truly naive purists and perhaps a few dinosaurs from a previous age who would actually position the two mediums against each other. Sewell questions the legitimacy of photography versus painting, completely missing the point, as though the two could be compared. Photography has been part of mainstream consciousness for over a century; it’s immediate, accessible and pervasive in a way that painting will never be again. Anyone who has a modern phone, a digital (or even a £5 disposable) camera can create photographic images. This doesn’t negate photography as an artistic medium, look at the work of Ansel Adams or Diane Arbus for an instant confirmation of this, but equally it doesn’t place it in direct competition with painting. The National Gallery show is to demonstrate how modern artists are inspired and fed by old master works and themes, not to say one is better than the other.

In his text Sewell states that successful photography must only be documentary, must explain the events and atrocities of our time, where painting would fail. Whilst tempering his obvious disgust of the medium he delivers a backhanded compliment, as he believes good photographs of this type have been selected from a ‘hundred alternatives’, they are not the ‘deliberate compositions of a painter.’ Whom does he think these photographers are, who snap, snap, snap away in the expectation of getting a lucky shot, for whom nothing is measured or controlled, and no intellectual decision making comes into play? This happy snap approach must only apply in the very tiniest of situations, such as Robert Capa quickly capturing his iconic image of the soldier being shot during the Spanish Civil War. Sewell really knows, just as much as any reasonably intelligent person, that photography is a medium that demands meticulous, calculated attention to detail, which requires many years of experience and tinkering to master.

Robert Capa, The Falling Soldier (September 5, 1936)

Referencing photography as only a source of documentation is plainly ridiculous and limiting: “when a photographer pretends that he is an artist, he is a trespasser”. Ignoring the unnecessary use of the male pronoun, what Sewell is saying here is that no narrative is possible in photography, there can be no playfulness, no use of imagination, no meaning beyond what can be immediately inferred from the image itself. Photography here is a medium which cannot expand beyond itself. Within his article photography is further reduced to a deadening process, the surface ‘does not act’, it provides a barrier to the image. I would ask him to look at the work of Nan Goldin or Cindy Sherman if he seeks storytelling or imagination, look to Annie Leibovitz, Nobuyoshi Araki or Mario Testino if he wants the sumptuous texture and luxurious chunkiness which he thinks only painting can achieve.

It’s no surprise that Sewell hates Seduced by Art, is insulted by photography and master paintings being hung side by side, for it is him who lacks imagination, not the painters who use photography as part of their work whom he belittles. Sewell uses the age of works, effectively uses the passing of time, to provide a veneer of authenticity and credibility. I don’t think I can recall him writing anything positive about post-1950’s art, with the exception of Jenny Saville, who is a painterly painter of the highest degree. But Sewell needs to wise up to the fact that painting isn’t the only way to create awestruck wonder anymore. It’s not only the privileged and the educated, with a wealth of knowledge and cultural reference points, who can access art nowadays, and nor should it be. Photography is an unintimidating, amazing tool, gives us eyes into other worlds, can shock, inspire and challenge. It’s an intelligent artform which is here to stay. As for Seduced, I’ll let you know once I’ve seen it, having gone in with a slightly more measured view.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Untitled (From Painting Flowers), (2004), Cibachrome Print

Read Brian Sewell’s review at http://www.standard.co.uk/arts/visual-arts/seduced-by-art-photography-past-and-present-national-gallery-wc2–review-8273188.html

Seduced by Art is on display at the National Gallery until 20th January 2013.

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